Peter Jones

Ancient and modern: Austerity in Athens

Last time Pericles showed how a real politician dealt with the severe austerity measures he had persuaded the Athenians to adopt if they were to win the battle against Sparta in 431 bc (i.e. abandon their lands and come to live inside Athens’ protective walls): he pointed out that these measures meant that he and the rich would lose their vast properties and the income they generated. So last week the Greek parliament took this hint and slapped on a property tax. Politicians will obviously be very keen to pay it to prove they are not the cushioned shysters Athenians take them to be.

But in summer 430 bc it got worse. Athens was hit by a terrifying plague which, in the crowded conditions, killed thousands and led to a breakdown in law and order. It was every man for himself, rich and poor alike. Pericles again rallied them in words relevant to Athens today, where law and order are equally in the balance. As Thucydides makes clear of a man ‘who was even prepared to anger the people’, he did not mince his words.

A man may be personally well off, Pericles says, but if his country is ruined, he is ruined; so everyone must rally to the state’s defence, otherwise they will lose grip on their common security. Again, he is a man who, loving his country and being above corruption (as Athenians knew), would never speak up for sectional interests; for ‘if a leader is corrupt, this one fault puts all his other qualities up for sale’.

The fact is, he goes on, you have failed the test of endurance when the going gets rough.

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